My war on science

09/04/2011

 
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I recently wrote a piece for the Guardian in which I argued that science couldn’t be sold to the 21st century schoolboy because it lacks mystery. Trawling through the comments, most critics seemed to be angry that I had confused science and engineering. Is there a difference? They seem equally dull.

When I was at school I was forced at gun-point to learn physics. I was once tasked with doing an experiment in which I ran a toy car down a ramp with some ticker-tape attached. The tape was fed through a machine that tapped out black dots on it. The principle was that the distance between dots would lengthen or shorten according to the angle of the ramp. The faster it ran down a steep slope, the fewer the dots because there was less time between each tap.

Inevitably, I fell asleep and didn’t complete the experiment in class. For homework we had to stick the tape into our exercise books and construct a graph to show the effect of different angles of ramp. As I hadn’t done anything all period, I just drew my own dots on the tape and constructed the graphs as I imagined they should look. I handed the my exercise book in and forgot all about it.

A week later, the physics master called me in to shout at me (he was an unpleasant man and that’s all he ever did). He pointed out that the steeper the slope of the ramp, the fewer dots there ought to be. But on my graphs, the steeper the slope the more dots there were. That meant that the toy car had sped down the ramp when it was lying on the floor and ground to a halt when it stood at a 90 degree angle. “Stanley,” he said, “Either you made up your results or you’ve broken the laws of physics. How do you explain yourself?”
“Could it have been a miracle?” I suggested.
“Not in my class, boy, no.”
Obviously, I was just being a bored brat. But, ten years later, I stand by my plea that my homework was immaculately conceived. Why shouldn’t it have been a miracle? And that’s where me and science depart. I want to believe.

Of course, I like science really. I love medicine and deep sea exploration. I would give anything to walk on the red sands of Mars, or journey to the center of the Earth. And I’m the biggest, geekiest fan of science fiction. To me, Robert Heinlein wasn’t just a Nazi pervert; he was a visionary. And there were times when Philip K Dick’s drug-induced world seemed more real than this one. Then there are the scientific mysteries of sex, which were every boy’s first introduction to the pleasure glands. Drawing pictures of the reproductive systems was the best bit of biology.

But, as I argued in The Guardian, I dislike what science has become since its amateurish glory days of the 1800s. I wrote, “[The old Romantic] passion play is missing in contemporary society, and the scientific establishment of Britain would probably resent it should it return. It existed partly because the Victorian world had so much more mystery in it than ours. The oceans, the colonies and space had yet to be explored. Once they were, a little of the wonder of science died. Now that God is gone and science has been separated from art, technology is functional and dull. Whereas the Victorians strove outwards into the realms of nature and the supernatural, modern research has turned inwards to the atom and the molecule. [Others] not believe it, but computer programming is not nearly as interesting as fairy hunting.”

I didn’t have the space to say it, but science’s biggest problem is that it has evolved into an ideology. Like any ideology, it needs enemies to define itself by – hence religion and the humanities are treated like its nemeses. It also tends to behave as though its belief structure is fact rather than theory constructed from observed regular occurence (i.e., "gravity" is only the word used to describe the fact that the apple always falls downwards. All that stuff about attracting forces and atomic sizes is pure speculation). Recall that the Marxists insisted society was defined by the class struggle long after the Soviet Union had begun to crumble under the pressures of nationalism, religious awakening, and The Who (if Tom Stoppard is correct). The scientific establishment has all the hallmarks of fundamentalist Sovietism. Ironically, that means that the futurists feel increasingly anachronistic.

Empiricism is an approach to using facts; it is not a fact in and of itself. When it was first conceived it was controversial and it remains so in the various schools of philosophy (among theists, existentialists, post-modernists etc). That was partly because it opened up superstitious belief to a critique based on physical evidence. But the concept that faith should be tested by reason was not original, nor was one initially intended to subvert the other. Galileo spent many months agonizing over whether or not to withdraw his findings about the movement of the stars partly because he didn’t want to undermine the centuries old faith of Europe. In Brecht’s Life of Galileo, a priest explains to our hero why it would be better to ignore empirical evidence, even if it might add up to a convincing theory about the Earth's location in the universe: “[My family has] been assured that the eye of God is upon them, searching and almost anxious, that the whole world-wide stage is built around them in order that they, the players, may prove themselves in their great or small roles. What would my people say if I were to tell them they were living on a small chunk of stone that moves around another star, turning incessantly in empty space, one among many and more or less significant? What would be the good or necessity of their patience, of their acquiescence in their misery? What would be the good of the Holy Scripture which explains everything and demonstrates the necessity of all their sweat, patience, hunger and submission, if it turns out to be full of errors? … In that case, they will say, no one is watching over us. Must we, untaught, old and exhausted as we are, look out for ourselves? No one has given us a part to play, only this wretched role on a tiny star which is wholly dependent, around which nothing turns? There is no sense in our misery, hunger means no more than going without food, it is no longer a test of strength; effort means no more than bending and carrying, there is no virtue in it."

An empirical study of the natural environment has obvious, functional uses. But it is not only useless but damaging if it subtracts from the beauty of life, or rather the order that is the origin beauty. The Victorians, and most of their antecedents, saw science as a branch of philosophical inquiry – a way of using the physical to build a bridge to the metaphysical. That’s why so many of them attended séances, believing table-wrapping to be as much an empirical study of the natural world as the dissection of a body. Frustratingly, modern science not only rejects the aspirations of ghost-hunters and psychics, but it also rewrites the rules of empiricism according to the need to safeguard its ideological purity. Hence, the lack of evidence in the fossil record for the process of one species becoming another is ignored by Richard Dawkins. You can watch him being asked to provide it. Bless him, he just changes the conversation.

Science stripped of artistic fancy is dull. Science stripped of ethics is a threat, especially when it becomes a part of state or corporate bureaucracy. The view that the goal of the scientist is purely to research and to push knowledge to its furthest limits is amoral. Motored by profits or ideology, it has become more than just boring or ugly. In the age of the atom and the germ, it is a threat to our very existence. Even as it prolongs our lives, it has defiled our ethics and reduced us to barbarians.

The acme of scientific fundamentalism is vivisection. Perhaps it is necessary, but that’s not the point. Science – especially when funded by the tax payer – exists to serve mankind. When man decides that it has crossed an ethical line (no matter how arbitrary), then it should stand down. I close with this unpleasant thought. Next week the US army will begin testing nerve agents on vervet monkeys. Quite why they need to do this is unclear because an idiot can tell you that toxic poison does horrible things to soldiers. But just to be sure, they’re going to give overdoses of the stuff to 20 monkeys. What worlds there are to conquer!

As history shows, vivisection always descends into sadism. Give a man power over a beast and he will abuse it. The Scientific establishment refuses to accept that, much as Marxists insisted no one exploited anyone in the USSR even as they opened fire on striking dockworkers. Already, disturbing reports have emerged that one of the lab technicians ‘humorously’ compared the effect of the agent on the monkeys to “a chiwawa [sic] shitting razor blades.” If we are, as science suggests, merely talking apes then doesn’t it seem strange to torture a member of our own species in their manner? Of course, scientists would rather leave that question to the philosophers.